STEVENSON, Ala. - Scroll through the school records for North Jackson's football program and you'll see Montel Hale's name 17 times, including five offensive records he set last season. But glance at the Chiefs' roster for this season and you'll also notice Hale's name no longer appears there. That means someone has to step in and fill the huge offensive and special teams void left by Hale, who will play for Bethel University this season.
"He was kind of our security blanket for a long time," Chiefs coach Shawn Peek said. "You knew Montel was a playmaker and that's what we've got to have if we're going to get where we want to be again. We've got several guys with that kind of potential, it's just a matter of making it happen."
The first choice to take over as the Chiefs' new "go-to" player is senior Kahne Cooper, who was the team's second-leading receiver with more than 900 yards and a three-year starter in the secondary. The 5-foot-10, 175-pound Cooper will continue to line up at receiver, but will also get chances to carry the ball and will even take snaps at quarterback, while the team allows freshman signal caller Kitt Grider to adjust to varsity competition.
North Jackson returns six offensive and four defensive starters from last year's team that won 13 games before falling in the Class 4A semifinals. Juniors DaQuan Lawrence (6-2, 165) and Austin Blevins are also expected to pick up some of the offensive slack and the line should be solid with the return of Marquez Nicholson (Sr., 6-0, 225), Josh Swearingen (Sr., 6-1, 220) and Cody Gilliam (Sr., 5-11, 215). Defensively, middle linebacker Dwight McGowan (Sr., 5-11, 190) is the leading returning tackler and Blevins is a future college prospect at safety.
Meanwhile in Alabama's Class 2A, former UT-Chattanooga offensive lineman Brent Tinker continues to build the program into a consistent playoff contender. After going more than 10 years without a winning season, the Hornets followed 2009's 11-win season with a 7-4 finish last year and returns six starters to both sides of the ball this year.
"We've got decent size and speed and a lot of experience so we feel like everything is within our control to keep building on our recent success," Tinker said. "We just need a couple of guys step up now if we're going to do that."
The biggest boost to this year's playoff hopes is the return of senior running back Teague Whitaker (5-9, 185), who has started since his freshman year and rushed fore more than 1,200 yards each of the last two seasons. Just as important on the defensive side is the return of Tanner Frazier, a three-year starter at middle linebacker, who led the team in tackles last year. The Hornets have good size up front on both sides of the ball in juniors Justin Lea and Hunter Townsend, both of whom are 6-4, 255.
Also in 2A, North Sand Mountain expects the return of 15 starters to help rebound from from last year's 4-6 finish. Chief among the players who are back is junior quarterback Tyler Vann, who threw for 1,500 yards as well as receiver Max Kirby. Zach Walsh was an honorable mention all-state safety last year who will also see time at receiver.
"We have high expectations because we have the ability to be a good team and make the playoffs," said Bison coach Adam Gilbert. "We have 10 assistant coaches so the kids are coached very well. We just have to put it all together."
Second-year Scottsboro coach Swane Morris hopes the return of four offensive line starters and the experience of 13 total starters back will turn around last year's 1-9 disappointment.